Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

Chris Holt: Cliftonville are genuine contenders

When Cliftonville last clinched the league title in 1998, it was one of the most exciting things to happen to the local game in decades.

Here was a team who epitomised the very word. A lot of them were north Belfast lads, boyhood fans, and boss Marty Quinn, a legend as a player at Solitude, had put together a side that were gritty and determined, fought for each other, yet at times were great to watch.

The most important thing, however, was that they weren't Glentoran or Linfield.

Cliftonville had carried on a trend that had seen neither of the Big Two manage to take the Gibson Cup in four years and there was a genuine belief that maybe, just maybe, the stranglehold the rivals had on the title was now gone for good.

The Reds joined Portadown and Crusaders as teams who could challenge for the big trophies and with that, perhaps the Scottish Premier League-like predictability that our own competition had suffered had been banished.

Alas that didn't prove to be the case. Roy Coyle rejuvenated Glentoran and they took the title the following year and David Jeffrey gave Linfield a much-needed kick up the backside and since then they have rarely been out of the frame.

Cliftonville struggled the following season, the team broke up and Quinn took up a new job at Coleraine.

Portadown threatened to at least make it a consistent three horse race when they reclaimed the Gibson Cup in 2002, but that was the last time that neither the Glens or the Blues were shining up the old trophy.

Over the past couple of years there have been various threats to break up the duopoly, from Cliftonville and Crusaders mostly, but when it came to the crunch, they didn't have the strength in depth to continue the fight.

So what makes anyone think this year will be any different?

Crusaders have already showed that their form is too inconsistent to carry on a protracted challenge, but taking into account the fight shown in beating Linfield to the Co Antrim Shield two weeks ago, they would be a fair bet to retain their Irish Cup.

But what of the Crues' north Belfast rivals?

Ironically this is probably the weakest squads, in terms of numbers anyway, that Eddie Patterson has had since the Reds really began to put up a fight again. The difference is though, it's all about the quality and not the quantity this year.

Patterson has had to cut his cloth, perhaps more than most clubs in the league and because of that, young players have had to be brought in and relied upon more than they should really have been.

But they have certainly stepped up to the plate.

Kids like Mark Clarke, Mark Patterson and, of course, Liam Boyce have been superb and that's with having had to suffer a fair few injuries along the way this season, too.

And their youthful exuberance has now shot the Reds, from nowhere, to the top of the Carling Premiership and all on a shoestring.

Glentoran and Linfield are paying out a fair amount of money on wages at the minute and their fans aren't getting value for money. That can't be said for Crusaders, and it definitely can't be said for Cliftonville.

You could say Eddie has finally found the key that Marty Quinn held back in '98. Tim McCann, Gerry Flynn and Mickey Collins were the younger players in those days – albeit a few years older that the Class of 2010 – and were used to great effect.

Patterson has done the same and though he'll say it was through necessity, the formula has still been found. Linking up with players like the Scannell brothers and George McMullan and, without sounding condescending, even Kieran O'Connor, the kids have helped develop a squad that is capable of winning the title.

Whether they do is another story – and for the record I think it'll still be one of the Big Two – but eight league wins in a row and a rightful place at the top means that Cliftonville deserve at least to be thought of as contenders.

And if Boyce can keep playing the way he is, then by the twilight of the campaign, they'll still be seen as contenders.

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